Mission Blue

It was really dark, nearly pitch black, as I made my decent to 1,300 feet. It was hot on the surface, but as I dived deeper the heat quickly dissipated, and condensation started to drip from the thick acrylic dome above my head. As I drifted deeper and deeper into the abyss, I peered through my window and looked down, trying to find some kind of visual reference. At 780 feet I could just make out the shape of a tiny submersible sitting on an enormous, white sandy ledge. The sight was totally unbelievable and a bit intimidating — imagine looking down from a huge skyscraper and seeing a tiny spot of light on the street below. Now imagine you’re falling rapidly toward that light.

As I passed the 1,000-foot mark, I started to think about where to land and how to avoid smashing into one of the world’s great explorers. As I contemplated the possible headlines and the end to my career, a voice crackled on the radio: “Kip, is that you? Can you turn on your lights so I can guide you in?” Oh crap, I should have turned on my lights at 700 feet. I responded, “Sure, Sylvia, but I hate to ruin this great ambience.” She laughed and said, “Good point. Shall I turn off my lights, too?” I laughed, tripped my lights and landed 20 feet away from “her deepness” — Dr. Sylvia Earle.

I met Earle in 1998 while I was working for the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, a five-year partnership between the National Geographic Society and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to explore the United States’ National Marine Sanctuaries using one-person submersibles called DeepWorkers. National Marine Sanctuaries are federally designated areas within U.S. waters that provide protection for significant ecological, historic and recreational areas. Currently there are 14 marine sanctuaries encompassing more than 150,000 square miles. During this five-year period, I spent weeks at sea with Earle — scuba diving, sub diving and watching for countless hours as this incredible woman put every ounce of her being into saving this blue planet of ours.

School of black margates
Black margates, Hol Chan MPA, Ambergris Caye, Belize

Hope Spots

Now, 10 years later, Earle has launched a new campaign called Mission Blue, a global initiative formed in response to her 2009 TED Prize wish. In the acceptance speech she gave after winning the prize, Earle urged people to “use all means at your disposal — films, expeditions, the web, new submarines — [to create] a campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas — ‘hope spots’ — large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.”

“Hope spots” refer to areas in the ocean that if protected or restored give cause for hope. They may be as pristine as Raja Ampat or as radically changed as the Chesapeake Bay. Some are already marine protected areas (MPAs), and others stand to gain much from being so. It’s easy to see the benefits bestowed by such protection: Fish are bigger, older and more productive, and species diversity is typically much higher — up to 70 percent higher in some areas.

Since its inception, Mission Blue has grown into a coalition of partners including National Geographic, the Nature Conservancy, America’s Cup, Ocean Conservancy and Earle’s own foundation, the Sylvia Earle Alliance (SEA). It’s also supported by an impressive list of celebrities and conservation leaders.

Cuddly sea otter floats down the water on its back
An endangered Southern sea otter, Elkhorn Slough MPA, California

Currently there are hundreds of MPAs throughout the world, but only a fraction of 1 percent of our ocean is fully protected. Some governments are better than others at recognizing the importance of protecting their coastal waters. In the United States, for example, California has been leading the way with the designation of a statewide network of MPAs that will protect 15 percent of the California coast by 2013. These MPAs vary, from no-take zones that provide the greatest level of protection to areas that allow limited activities including recreational fishing. Rather than focusing on a single species, California’s MPAs protect entire ecosystems, including kelp-forest communities, open-ocean habitats and others. Eventually the network will expand to include the entire California coast, from Mexico to Oregon.

There are many international success stories, too, especially where you find widespread support from stakeholders. Since its designation in 1995, Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo has seen a 463 percent increase in biomass in its no-take reserve, the largest measured increase in any marine protected area in the world. Scientists have measured large increases in sharks and other predators there as well.

The term “hope spot” was chosen in response to the word “hot spot.” Biodiversity hot spots are areas of high diversity that face serious threats to their continued existence. Earle wanted an epithet that would ignite people to action, and “hope spot” seems to be a great identifier for those areas that still have a chance.

Pushing the Limits

Today nearly 50 percent of the world’s coral reefs are in trouble, and scientists have seen an increase in the number of dead zones (areas of low oxygen content in the sea) around the globe. “Looking back 20 years there were great concerns about the existence of more than 100 dead zones, but now there are more than 500, and the pace is picking up,” Earle said. There are serious changes to wildlife populations as well. Roughly 90 percent of the sharks are gone. “We’re very good at catching them — too good,” she said. They’ve been around for 300 million years, but in the last half century we’ve managed to eliminate the great majority of the big sharks and many of the small ones, too.

Shiver of reef sharks hang out near a coral reef
Caribbean reef sharks, Jardines de la Reina MPA, Cuba

When you remove predators from the top of the food chain there are consequences. We are shifting ocean food chains, tipping the balance of nature. “As we continue to remove not only sharks but tuna, swordfish, marlin, groupers, snappers, cod and even the small fish that are critically important,” Earle said, “we will continue to push these systems to the point of no return.”

Saving What’s Left

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the grim news, but Earle has a way of looking at things differently. “We still have 10 percent of the sharks left,” she said, “and 50 percent of the coral reefs are still in relatively good shape.” The challenge, of course, is to save what we have before it’s too late. That’s precisely what Mission Blue is all about. In March 2010, the TED Prize organized an expedition to the Galapagos Islands aboard the National Geographic Endeavor, hosting 100 ocean leaders who work on key initiatives including education, enforcement and protection for different areas in the ocean. A worldwide collection of partners dedicated to ocean conservation, research, exploration, policy, technology and communication coalesced around Mission Blue, and another expedition is in the works for 2013.

Alligator floats near the camera to say hello

Staying Connected

As a busy celebrity who carries two phones and often finds her mailbox jammed with speaking requests, Earle takes advantage of opportunities to escape and reconnect with the places she loves. As a diver she really slows down and takes her time — in an almost complete about-face from her topside personality. She tends to find places where she can float along slowly and observe relatively small areas. “I love the calm that comes with being one with the water,” she said, “settling down in a place, watching the fish, observing behaviors, looking for little things and sometimes missing the big things because I have my nose pressed against the reef.”

Last year on a Mission Blue expedition in the Swan Islands (more than 100 miles off Honduras), I made an evening dive with her where we stayed at 30 feet the entire time. After 90 minutes we headed back to the boat feeling like prunes but thrilled after exploring an incredible stand of elkhorn coral. While we were ascending I looked over at her pressure gauge and was shocked to see she had nearly 2,000 pounds of air remaining. I love kidding her about being half fish, and I appreciate having a dive buddy who is likely to have a great deal of air to share should the need arise.

The green head of a spiny blenny pokes its head out of a coral
A spiny blenny peeks out of its coral home in the Swan Islands, Honduras.

Curiosity and Exploration

When I’ve asked her about her favorite sea creatures, she seems to love every one. “Oh I do love octopuses and squids; cephalopods rock — every one of them,” Earle said. “And you know I’m a seaweed person; I love the red and brown and green and blue-green photosynthesizers and the golden-browns, too — whatever they are. It just gives me such a jolt of joy when I see some familiar pals out there.” She can’t say for sure she has a favorite, but if pressed she will tell you she has a special fondness for groupers. “They are just so alert and so curious and uninhibited, and that’s what gets them into trouble — they’re curious about hooks with bait on them,” she said. “But they follow you around with their big eyes, looking at you — and not as if they want to take a bite out of you. It seems they’re just curious, and I don’t think it has to go much deeper than that. Well, barracuda are curious; a lot of fish are, squids are, octopuses are, little kids are, scientists are, you are, I am. Maybe it’s just the nature of those with the right attitude.”

A great majority of the ocean — about 95 percent of it — remains unexplored, even in relatively shallow depths, and Earle relishes every opportunity to plumb the deep areas. “There are some places that have received disproportionate attention when compared to the ocean as a whole, like popular dive sites, for example, but it’s still possible, even in coastal areas, to find places that have not been explored underwater,” she said. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean these places haven’t been exploited. The ocean is increasingly accessible to those who want to take from it. That’s true even in deep water well beyond where divers go. In the Gulf of California, for example, deep trawls rake up shrimp from thousands of feet beneath the surface, and nobody has ever even been down there.”

A lingcod with spots hangs out at the bottom of a kelp forest
A large lingcod looks for its next meal at the bottom of a kelp forest (Carmel Pinnacles MPA, California).

A priority for Mission Blue is to gain more access to the deep ocean, not only for exploration but for conservation as well. Earle has spent hundreds of hours in submersibles and has firsthand knowledge of their value in such endeavors. “Having access through remotely-operated-vehicle (ROV) camera systems provides a lot of information,” she said. “They’re great, but it’s no more like actually being down there than looking at photographs of a fine restaurant in Paris is the same as being there drinking wine and enjoying good company — it’s just not the same.” Having worked with both ROV and submersible systems during my career, I agree with her assessment. In a submersible you can follow hunches, and being in the water sharpens your senses — you can make choices based on seeing things out of the corner of your eye. As astronaut Cathy Sullivan put it, “A machine can’t tell you why it wants to explore, but human beings can.”

Making a Difference

During the past four years members of Earle’s SEA foundation have spent time in shallower areas as well, visiting Cuba, Belize, Honduras, Mexico, Cocos Island and Panama. Working with local scientists, conservation leaders and SEA board members, the team has helped push for greater protection in areas that have none and areas with some protection but no enforcement.

Two fishermen hold the bloody body of a hammerhead shark
Two Kino Bay fishermen hold a hammerhead shark they caught with a gill net. Large sharks are rare in the Gulf of California due to overfishing (Midriff Islands, Mexico).

Along the way they have produced short documentary films about these locations, written dozens of blog posts and highlighted science and conservation programs while working on site. In 2009, for example, the team released an award-winning film called Isla Holbox: Whale Shark Island after one of their expeditions. Holbox is home to a traditional Mexican fishing village and is an important destination for whale sharks — and now tourists eager to see these great creatures in the wild.

In addition to making films, the SEA foundation is also educating people about hope spots using Google Earth. In the program’s ocean layer, people can take virtual dives in some hope spot areas including the Galapagos, the Gulf of Mexico and Hawaii.

Small and diverse assortment of fish and other crustaceans caught by fishermen
As their catches get smaller, fishermen must spend longer hours and go farther from home to make a living (Gulf of California, Mexico).

The future for Mission Blue looks busy and bright, and if Earle has her way we will see a sharp increase in the number of MPAs around the world. After decades of overfishing, pollution and climate change, we are threatening the very foundation of our life-support system — and the future of mankind. As Earle puts it, “No blue, no green.” Through Mission Blue, she hopes to help increase the size of protected marine habitats from less than one percent to at least 20 percent of the world’s oceans by 2020. “There is just one hope spot” she says. “It is the mostly-blue Earth. Fifty years ago we did not appreciate the limits to what we can put into the ocean or the consequences to what we take out. Fifty years from now, if present trends continue, it will be too late to do what now is possible. As never before, this is the time to act to secure an enduring future for humankind.”

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2012